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'They Were Dark Days Indeed. But Hope Was Always Kept Alive.' Frank Lowy’s Journey From War-Torn Europe To Westfield’s $16B Sale

Westfield Corp. founder Frank Lowy

The ballroom of the Grosvenor House Hotel in London was packed with 1,300 raucous property folk, who had been drinking for a few hours and were celebrating with their friends.

But when Westfield’s Sir Frank Lowy got up to make a speech and pick up a lifetime achievement award from Property Week in 2012, the room fell quiet and then silent as he told a remarkable and eloquent tale.

“Many of you are familiar with my background as a survivor of the Nazi era,” Czechoslovakia-born Lowy said. “Many of my family perished, including my father, and you can imagine the dark days I experienced as a young boy trying to survive with my mother in Eastern Europe during the war.”

“They were dark days indeed. But hope was always kept alive. And one of my most enduring memories was of the hope we drew from [the U.K.]. As a little boy I remember huddling around a radio, listening to the BBC for news of the Allied advance.

“I can still hear the bell of Big Ben tolling in the hour as the news came on. I vividly remember the voice of Winston Churchill rallying this nation, and the rest of the free world, to hang on. To have faith. To keep going.”

Rendering of Westfield Century City's $1B makeover.

Keep going he did, and from those uncertain beginnings he went on to build one of the biggest commercial property companies in the world, Westfield, which this week sold to Unibail-Rodamco for an enterprise value of $24.7B. The sale marks Lowy's effective exit from the business he spent six decades building.

The Lowys eventually settled in Australia, and Frank started Westfield with a single shopping centre on the outskirts of Sydney in 1959.

The company floated on the Australian stock exchange in 1960 and continued its expansion across the country. It first expanded to the U.S. in 1977 with the purchase of the Trumbull Shopping Park in Connecticut, and now owns 31 centres across the country, including the new mall at the World Trade Center.

Lowy said in his 2012 speech that he had been trying to establish a presence in the U.K. since the 1970s, an ambition he finally achieved in 2000.

“I have always had a special regard for England,” he said. “It is a nation with a confidence and belief in the just cause. And it has always been willing to back that belief with enormous sacrifice when called upon. I have forever been grateful for that, as someone who on a very personal level benefited from this country’s leadership during those dark days.”

Westfield London

The company Lowy chairs until the Unibail deal completes owns the two top centres in the U.K., at Westfield London and Westfield Stratford, and is building a third super regional mall to the south of London. It is building another European mall in Milan.

In 2014 Westfield split its U.S. and European operations off from its Australasian business, and it is the former that Unibail has bought. The Australasian business, called Scentre, remains an independent listed company. The combined Unibail/Westfield company will have a portfolio valued at $72B and a market capitalisation of $36B.

Westfield is not just big — its centres are seen as the gold standard of quality in the sector, the model to which others aspire, and properties that are changing the way people interact with the world of retail. Westfield is one of the few commercial real estate companies the average person on the street recognises by name.

Lowy will continue as an advisor to the company. His two sons, Peter and Steven, are stepping down as co-chief executives. The family will retain a shareholding but are handing over control of the company.

“Assets I’ve spent my life building, I could not imagine a better home for them than in this new company," he said.

It is not hard to see why Lowy was so keen to build an international business, dealing heavily in London and the U.S.

“[Hearing Churchill] was stirring stuff for a youngster, and even if I didn’t truly understand everything that was going on at the time, the message I took from it has stayed with me throughout my life,” he said.

“It was a message of hope. And it was proof to me, as a youngster, that there were people, there were nations, out there that cared about what was happening to us, and that help was on the way.”

That hope and internationalist spirit drove Lowy on to become one of the most successful real estate figures of his age.